Does success hinge on picking the most talented players as team captains?
Some people were surprised when BYU announced team captains other than Kyle Van Noy and Cody Hoffman. It didn't surprise me at all, I never expected them to be selected because they've said many times before that it's not really their personality. Some local print and radio members were not only surprised but seemed sincerely infuriated. How dare Bronco Mendenhall allow that to happen?! Does he not care about football?! The outrage surprised me a little, and got me thinking. How much of a threat to BYU's on field performance is the selection of captains?
Brandon Ogletree was a team captain on the same defense as Kyle Van Noy, Spencer Hadley, Eathyn Manumaleuna, and Ziggy Ansah. All of those players were either better than Ogletree or drafted 5th overall while Ogletree got his undrafted FA agent deal waived. How much did it affect the defense that finished in the top 5 in the country in almost all categories? It actually helped quite a bit, because Ogletree had the charisma to hold other people on his team accountable. That is probably the most important quality in a team captain, followed by being reliable, and being the most talented on the team coming in a distant 3rd.
Austin Collie wasn't a team captain. Scott Johnson made a great team captain, but was pretty far down the talent ladder in 2009. I doubt that any team in FBS always has their best, most talented players as captains.
This likely has more to do with how Bronco uses walk-ons, as well as vocabulary like "grit", "tough", and "hard worker." You would think after all these years, he would have read their blogs, columns, or tweets and listened to their radio shows and learned that they don't like when he uses those words. The sad reality is that he doesn't pay any attention to them at all outside of obligatory interviews (he won't even have the decency to read this blog post!), and maybe that is what really bothers them about Coach Mendenhall.
Let's be honest, the podium pounding, the ranting, the raving, and all the incredulity over the BYU football team captain selections wasn't about football. Deep down many of these angry people don't care about whether or not this will affect BYU's winning percentage or performance. How many simply don't like Bronco Mendenhall, and not in regards to how he coaches football? If you asked them, they might admit he's a good a coach, and a good fit for the culture at BYU, from the board of trustees down to the guys who always shave before entering the testing center. How many don't like him as a person and use this nonsense about team captains as just another chance to take their personal dislike and disguise it as a football issue.
No big wins?
If coach Mendenhall had a field goal for every time a critic or columnist accused him of having no big wins, he'd be the best coach in the country. Of course, we would still hear complaints about the selection of team captains.
The big win argument isn't the most subjective critique of the program, but it has to be close. Some consider big games to be against teams that finished ranked. Others are more generous, and might include any combination of teams ranked on game day, rivals, bowl opponents, or even any old team from a BCS conference. I feel like we need the "big win" critics to be more specific, and categorize themselves with a disclaimer. Some fans like to call it revisionist history--just change your description/definition of what actually happened to fit with the narrative you want to deliver.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I consider the following to be "big wins":
- vs teams that finish ranked,
- vs teams ranked on game day,
- rivalry games,
- and bowl games on a case-by-case basis. (Personally, I think Oregon in 2006 and Tulsa in 2011 were moderately big games.)
The other day I heard a local sports radio station deliver my favorite argument against Bronco's big game record. The host said if you take away rivalry games, he only has one big win.
I'm assuming that rivalry games include USU and TCU, and he was also discrediting bowl games. How else could he explain away wins over ranked teams in 2006, 2009 and 2012?
If media have the liberty to discount big games from a coach's record, I don't blame any coach for being deficient in that category. If we discounted all of coach Whittingham's rivalry games (and conference games, and bowl games, as this radio host apparently does with Mendenhall), how many "big wins" does he have? Zero?
By the radio host's own logic, Mendenhall technically has more big wins than Whittingham: Oklahoma in 2009, and a fresh 40-21 beat down of Texas in 2013. So why does coach Mendenhall get this reputation of failing in big games, while his counterpart part doesn't? It has nothing to do with football.
Spirit, Tradition, Honor
I honestly admit that I was not in favor of replacing names with "Spirit", "Tradition", "Honor", and I expressed my sentiments to the dozens of people that listen to or read me. I thought it came off pretentious, although I don't think of coach Mendenhall as pretentious. I thought it would distract from the good that team is doing and be the butt of every joke rather than tout some admirable core values at a program that is sincere about those values. It's also a program that is as air-tight as any in its commitment to discipline, values, and the complete "student-athlete".
I don't think anyone would have been out of line in saying that move was misguided, uninformed, even foolish. Bronco Mendenhall himself said more or less the same at his next media availability. He gave everyone a good laugh at his expensive--after being the punch line in everyone's column 48 hours earlier. For a blunder like that, it seemed like a gracious, professional response. At least one columnist took the opportunity on his radio show to insist that all was not forgiven.
I would imagine that a successful writer is aware of the semantic distinction between "that's a dumb idea," "that was misguided," or "what was he thinking?!" and "his inner idiot has spoken," "he's cuckoo for Cocoa PuffsTM," or "he, and those rabid fans, are irrational." Apparently, if you are a "professional" columnist for a local newspaper, it is OK to take the situation personally, no matter how the coach tried to make amends and take responsibility for it.
There are pervasive mantras in sports: "just win" and "what have you for me lately (on the field)?" Coaches everywhere get judged solely by how they perform on field. Nobody cares when Mike Gundy doesn't use full contact scrimmages in fall camp, or if Mark Richt says the most important win ever is accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior. Things are a little different for Bronco Mendenhall. He isn't Nick Saban, or Chris Peterson, or Knute Rockne, but he has won games, and a lot of them. He has won bowl games. He HAS won big games. Sometimes, it seems that none of that matters to some members of the local media, or even some fans. If there is a chance to react to something they don't like about Mendenhall's personality, and disguise it as football rage, it is apparently fair game. The BYU coach often gets judged by a different standard, and it's not about football.
After his record, top-tier defense, and win against Texas last Saturday, he's proved to the fans his worth as a head coach.